A recent CD took me down a really rewarding overgrown path. Carol Lian (photo right) is an East Coast based pianist who has been associated for some time with the Composer's Theatre of the New School for Social Research. This school became known in the late 1930's as the "University in Exile" due to the many refugees from Nazi Germany who were either on the staff or student body.
During the early '40s the luminaries teaching there included the musicians Hanns Eisler, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, Jascha Horenstein, Rudolph Kolisch, and the theatre directors Erwin Piscator, Herbert Graf, as well as many economists, sociologists, writers and psychologists who went on to become highly influential in their fields. Later Aaron Copland was another distinguished name on the faculty.
The very first track on Carol Lian Plays told me that this was going to be an interesting journey. For this, her first CD release, Ms. Lian opens (and closes) with mood setting improvisations. The message is clear, this isn't going to be another 'cookie cutter' recital disc. OK, there is some skillfully despatched Scarlatti (Sonata L.104 and 352) and Ravel (the sublime Sonatine). But then things get really interesting before we reach the concluding Gershwin Preludes (and they certainly aren't routine either). Ralph Briggs was the first name that was new to me. His 1962 Toccata takes the key elements of the traditional toccata form, and moves them into the second half of the 20th century via the subtle use of dissonnance and open intervals. There is urgency and dynamism both in the writing and playing. I can't understand why this work isn't better known.
Those introductory improvisations set the stage for the second discovery. As the palindromic title indicates, Jack Reilly's La-No-Tib Suite is a compact three movement bitonal work. The Suite packs quite a punch for such a compact work (a bit like Webern). A triplet figure followed by a dotted eighth dominate the work, the pianist is called on to improvise in two of the three parts, yet there is an underlying melodic and reflective quality that acts as an appealing counterpoint to the advanced musical language.
A fascinating and rewarding work. But who is Jack Reilly?
Well he has some pretty sound classical credentials (photo right). He graduated from Manhattan School of Music, and served on the faculties of Mannes and Berklee Colleges, and the previously mentioned New School for Social Research. (Some of the overgrown path seem to cross at that school. I should point out that Reilly is married to pianist Carol Lian, I just hope there were no disagreements on tempi for the recording). In 1969 he was commissioned to write his Mass of Involvement, an original setting of the mass which uses vocal and instrumental improvisation. He has also written a Jazz Requiem (1968), which uses Mozart's Requiem as its model (the Benedictus is on his CD Masks). His Lament takes the Vietnam war as its theme, and his oratorio The Light of the Soul is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In 2001 his concerto for piano, jazz trio and symphony orchestra Orbitals was premiered by the the Keweenaw Symphony who are resident in the beautiful Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts at Michigan Tech University .
But that is only half the story.
The other half starts in 1948 on Staten Island with a big band named after the Modernaires pop group covering Glenn Miller tunes. (Which gives me one link I've never been able to set up before). Jack Reilly was one of the Modernaires, and that was the start of a career in jazz that is still going strong almost fifty years later. His musical epiphany came when he heard the legendary Lennie Tristano Quintet. He studied privately with Tristano (photo right), and also with the contemporary composer Ludmila Ulehla, and Indian classical musician Ali Akbar Khan.
His jazz career includes working with many big names, among them saxophonist Ben Webster (who worked with Duke Ellington) and vocalist Sheila Jordan. At the age of 19 he met Bill Evans at the US Navy School of Music in Washington D.C. This was the start of a Bill Evans connection that continues today. Evans piano technique was a strong influence on Reilly, and his studies of Evans have resulted in a the book The Harmony of Bill Evans. His writings also include the three volume Species Blue which takes the student pianist on a journey from elementary improvisation to full on free form playing.
Jack Reilly's extraordinary life also includes surviving cancer after treatment at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. This is celebrated in his recently premiered 'Green Spring Suite' which was featured in one of the 2005 John Hopkins Art of Healing concerts. As regular readers on an overgrown path will know I am a huge supporter of music as a therapy tool.
Reilly has recorded widely, including two volumes of piano improvisations based on the Tarot (right), and several albums of jazz piano improvisations which sit somewhere on the Bill Evans side of Keith Jarrett. Other highlights include his trio set (again strongly Evans influenced) November which mixes his own compositions with a Rogers and Hart standard. The last cut Kyrie is taken from his Mass of Involvement. Another standout is the recent Pure Passion which again mixes standards from Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk and Gershwin with Reilly originals.
For me the most remarkable thing about Jack Reilly's 73 year journey is the way he so effortlessly crosses boundaries. From jazz to classical, to Eastern harmonies, and back. From composer to live performer, to recording artist, to teacher, to author, through to musical and spiritual evangelist. In today's world of categorisation, specialisation and tunnel vision that is a very remarkable achievement.
As a recent Guardian review said: "Many pianists have grown on the Bill Evans tree, but Jack Reilly is special."
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Michel Petrucciani